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Stand out but don't hold a red flag

With our high school junior beginning the adventure searching for just the right college, my husband and I recently attended a college planning workshop at our local high school. The information was eye opening to say the least. All the work we and our daughter would have to do over the next year or so became quite clear (or at least less fuzzy).

I listened to the presentation intently as I didn't want to miss a thing. If I missed one word, we might lose out on something that would make this process easier. Then we got to the part about the essays. You must "stand out" was the overwhelming message. You must tell a story that is interesting and authentic. I get that. But then what he said absolutely shocked me. "Whatever you do for the essay, don't write about your struggles with mental health, they don't want to hear about your depression or anxiety. It is a red flag". He asked the audience to think about what the worst thing that could happen on a college campus could be. Someone in the front row quietly said, "a school shooting". He made the point. If you say in your essay that you struggled with depression or anxiety in high school, you will be considered a "red flag" which may put your admission at risk. (There is much I can say here about how most people with mental health problems are NOT violent but that is for another day).

I turned to my husband who turned to me at exactly the same time because he knew I would have some sort of adverse reaction. I said, "Did I hear that right?" He confirmed that unfortunately I did. To be fair, I was not upset with the messenger of the information as he was just telling it like it is. I was instead furious with "the system" for fostering an environment where it is not acceptable to talk about your mental health. I knew all along there was much more work to be done to bust the stigma around mental health, but hearing so bluntly how the college admission process doesn't care if a young person's mind is healthy while they worked to achieve "stand out" status kind of took my breath away.

In my work and in my personal life, I know so many young people (and adults) who are affected by poor mental health. It is SO common. It is part of their story. Some are getting help, many are suffering in silence. In fact, studies show over half of young people struggling with depression or anxiety are not getting help. That is the red flag here.

Shannon Hartnett, MA

Executive Director

Northeast DuPage Family and Youth Services

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